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LA County leaders vote down civilian oversight of sheriff

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas pushed for a blue ribbon commission to examine L.A. County's child welfare system. Now, the question is what'll come of the group's recommendations for reform.
Andres Aguila/KPCC
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Gloria Molina were the only two supervisors to support creating a civilian oversight body.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted 3-2 against creating a civilian commission to oversee the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

The county's five supervisors were in agreement on the need for effective oversight of the sheriff's department, which has received a lot of attention lately on issues of jail violence, poor conditions for mentally ill inmates, and allegations of disparate treatment of minorities by deputies patrolling the Antelope Valley. However, the group disagreed over what form that oversight should take.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who along with Supervisor Gloria Molina proposed a civilian commission, said rejecting the idea was tantamount to accepting the "status quo."

The board itself, as one of the primary bodies that has some power and a pulpit to bring issues at the sheriff's department to light, "cannot pay enough attention" to the department, Ridley-Thomas said.

"We need help," he said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the board should make the time. He also said the newly created Office of the Inspector General — whose powers the board considered in an ordinance Tuesday — should have time to take shape before the county creates a whole new commission.

"When everyone's in charge, no one's in charge," Yaroslavsky said.

Yaroslavsky further predicted that the U.S. Department of Justice, which brought criminal indictments against 21 current and former sheriff's employees over the past two years, may end up seeking court oversight of the department. 

"It's becoming abundantly clear that the justice department will compel the sheriff's department and this county to be accountable for constitutional policing, either through a consent decree or a memorandum of agreement," Yaroslavsky said. 

Unlike a civilian commission — which would lack formal authority — such an intervention would have real teeth, he said. 

Yaroslavsky said the courts and inspector general should be given a chance to work before the board considers creating a civilian board or pursuing the sort of state law changes that could give a commission real teeth.

Max Hunstman, the inspector general, asked supervisors to wait on the decision until after his office takes its full form.

"It's not the savior on a white horse that people want it to be," Huntsman said of the proposal. 

But leading sheriff's candidate Jim McDonnell, the current chief of the Long Beach Police Department, endorsed creating civilian oversight. 

Much of the assembled audience at the board on Tuesday also supported a civilian commission, even one that would lack formal authority. Most argued that an inspector general and even court intervention are no substitute for having a public forum where people directly impacted by the sheriff's department could voice their concerns.

"What's lacking for me is that sense of trust that things are going to be moving forward," said Marc Dworkin, a rabbi. "The community needs to speak."

Meanwhile, Huntsman, who also lacks much formal authority over an elected sheriff, told the board that he's attempting to negotiate access to the documents and investigations he'll need to review to adequately watchdog the department.

Interim Sheriff John Scott has "been very supportive," Huntsman said. But he still doesn't have access to things like the current investigation  of a deputy-involved shooting of an innocent man in Pico Rivera over the weekend.

"We need a plan B," Scott said. Rather than a civilian board, Huntsman recommended seeking changes in state law that would allow formal outside oversight of county sheriff departments.